“The silence, which again reigned, made her ashamed of her late fears, and she believed, that her imagination had deluded her, or that she had heard one of those unaccountable noises, which sometimes occur in old houses.” – The Mysteries of Udolpho, Anne Radcliffe
When I write a blog, it is often the direct result of experiences I’ve encountered while inspecting. Some time ago, when I wrote about radon gas, the post was prompted by a number of consecutive inspections for couples coming from coastal locations, where radon is much less of a concern, and who had virtually no knowledge of the subject.
In similar fashion, I recently worked with a welter of buyers each in search of a historic home to call their own. Winchester and the surrounding areas, as you may have noticed, are an absolute gold mine for those seeking such. Want a stately Victorian? We’ve got ‘em. Stout stone colonial? Take your pick. Early 20th century Four-Square? Too many to count.
As it turned out, the common thread between these buyers was not just their attraction to classic homes but also their unfamiliarity with their functionality; none of them had really ever lived in a home more than forty years old.
Anyone who has read my previous posts knows that I have a fast fondness for old homes. I grew up in one, and even the thought of laying hands on rusty gold is cathartic for me. But I am also aware that not everyone shares this sentiment. For many, the thought of a house that creaks and groans is about as appealing as living next to a graveyard or Chernobyl. Most people, as I have come to understand, are somewhere between love and terror when it comes to antique abodes. They appreciate the architectural features and perhaps the craft that went into building them, but they are less pleased with their quirkiness and lack of modern convenience.
So this [implied drum-roll] is my unofficial guide for folks fretting about whether or not to undertake the purchase of a casa with character. It is not as much a specific set of instructions as a reflection on understanding.
Old And Historic Are Not One-Size-Fits-All Terms:
The magic internet says that a human generation is twenty-five and a half years. For homes, it is productive to use thirty years as a generation. After all, this is the length of most mortgages. More importantly, many of the materials that make up a house have exceeded their service life after this point: paint peels, caulk crumbles, plastics fade and fracture, wood weathers – you get the point. The effect is compounding. Likewise, the more generations a house has lasted, the further it is from modern expectations of what a house is and does. I’ve written before about how building practices have changed over time, but what we expect a house to do has changed as well. Two hundred years ago, mechanical systems were mostly manual – think dumbwaiters and fireplace dampers – and climate control was primitive by today’s standards: you lit a fire when it got cold and opened a window when it got hot. Nowadays, we expect houses to warm and cool us within a degree of our specification, support an ever-growing array of appliances, and withstand wind and weather with minimal maintenance.
The older a house is, the fewer the number of conveniences could have been found at its conception. A house from the 1930s is historic, but it was built with now-familiar systems such as electricity and indoor plumbing. A house from the early nineteenth-century, by contrast, originally accommodated neither. The point is that the older a house is, the more varied and variable its mechanical systems will be.
Nothing Lasts Forever:
Just because a house has seen generations of weather, war, and wear doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need attention in the present. “It’s been that way for ____ years,” may be true, but is not a guarantee. Let me give you the most obvious example that comes to mind. Regarding the structural integrity of a house, it has been my experience that buyers want to divide homes into one of two categories: sound or failing. The reality is that most houses are somewhere between the two extremes. Every part of a home above individual stones and maybe some especially well-protected framing will need repair at some point. A house with bulging brick walls probably won’t fall down the day after closing, but the longer the repairs get put off, the more extensive and expensive they become.
Remember too, that each iteration of inhabitants treats a given house differently. One family might be fastidious about changing filters, but at the same time completely ignore water that is settling around the foundation. Another family might be fine with supplementing a broken boiler system with electric space heaters. Don’t expect a lot of consistency house-to-house when looking at historic habitations.
Turn-key is a misleading characterization in the best of circumstances, and can be massively misleading when it comes to houses more than a generation old. All but the most meticulously restored residences need work. In perspective, I’m pretty sure that low-maintenance was not a term bandied about when firewood had to be chopped or coal shoveled daily to keep the house warm. Historic homes can be beautiful and unique, but most need more work than their younger counterparts.
No. It’s Not Up to Code:
I won’t belabor this point because I’ve discussed it before, but keep in mind that our expectations for safety are constantly evolving. For instance, houses built before the late 1970s probably have lead paint in them somewhere. Building materials made with asbestos were used regularly through the 1960s. The stairs in most pre-World War II houses have a taller rise than they do now, and in pre-Victorian homes the stairs are steeper than most Alpine slopes. Electrical distribution panels installed when the average household used fewer than half the electric appliances we do on a daily basis today are obsolete.
Bringing even a mid-century house up to modern safety standards can be involved and expensive.
Use Your Powers of Observation:
Beautiful old buildings take their time revealing their secrets, and it is important to realize that even the most detailed inspection report will not be completely comprehensive. A truly comprehensive report on a house just fifty years old would take several days of inspection and invasive procedures (removing permanent fixtures and coverings) home inspectors are not allowed to undertake.
You will continue to discover unique things about a historic home for years to come.
Sometimes these will be cool, exciting secrets. My parents found coat buttons from a Civil War uniform under a window sill about a decade after they bought their house. Some folks in downtown Winchester have found whole uniforms. Other secrets are less helpful: finding live knob and tube wiring inside a wall, for instance.
This said, even a novice can make keen observation during a walk-through. The key is to be objective. At times it seems like an irremovable part of the human condition is our fantastic ability to override our intuition. Those Swiss cheese-esq stair stringers eaten up with rot are not fine. Windows that have been painted shut for fifty years are going to need work. Plumbing that is covered in rusty lesions is on borrowed time.
Don’t conflate what you like with what might become an issue. Fall in love with the slate roof and carefully crafted corbelling, but don’t let those features overshadow a failing furnace or water heater old enough to vote.
Invite Honest Conversation:
I hate to tell you this, but your vision for any perspective pad is not going to be exactly that of the person with whom you’re buying it. As Caroline and I renovate our house, hardly a piece of trim goes up without a debate that goes on for several cups of coffee.
It has been my experience that a frequent frustration for folks comes from the fact one or more of the buyers has a substantially different threshold for renovation and restoration. Different perspectives don’t mean that anyone has to give up on their dreams. But just maybe, opting for an early twentieth-century home instead of resurrecting a decrepit cabin from the eighteenth-century might be a more realistic restoration. If you’re in the market for a classic home, take the time to look at a number of different styles and eras if you can, hire a talented, experienced agent to guide you through the process, be clear about what features are important to you, and, of course, have a qualified home inspector draw up a detailed report to aid you in the decision making process.
Old homes are individual and unique in ways that new ones cannot be – at least not for some time. A marvelous but moldering mansion can ignite the imagination, cull creativity, and there is an inherent nobility in restoring the grandeur of a house that has long since established its credibility. But be aware that the expense and time needed to make your vision viable can be difficult to determine during a walk-through. I would never dissuade anyone from the purchase of a historic home, but, as a home inspector, I want to do my best to help buyers understand the scope and scale of what a move like this might mean.